Why You Should Think Twice Before Popping that Pain Pill

As a medical editor, I learn something new every day. I’m lucky to speak with the some of the leading experts on topics that span from arthritis to cardiovascular disease and am always amazed at their knowledge. At the end of these conversations, one question often resonates with me: Does the average person outside of the healthcare world really understand how this information can affect them?

This thought was on my mind throughout the last four months as I gained insight into the topic of over-the-counter pain relievers. After the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently increased its warning that the popular painkillers known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, it made me wonder if those who take the pills daily know that NSAIDs may actually do more harm than good.

After all, how harmful can the pills, such as ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) and naproxen (Aleve®, Naprosyn®) really be? Actually, taking NSAIDs daily can be pretty risky.

If you’re reading this I’m guessing you’ve turned to NSAIDs on many occasions throughout your life. From muscle strains to menstrual cramps, stress-induced headaches and everything in between, NSAIDs are an easy, cheap, and quick remedy.

Yet, as the saying goes, there can be too much of a good thing. As one gastroenterologist told me, “I could build my practice on patients who develop painful stomach ulcers by taking too many NSAIDs.”

Beyond the stomach issues NSAIDs can present, the most concerning complication lies with your heart. The prescription version of the popular painkillers including celecoxib (Celebrex®), have carried warnings from the FDA about the potential risks of heart attacks and strokes since 2005. Recently, the FDA amped up its warnings on both prescription and over-the-counter versions of NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) and naproxen (Aleve®, Naprosyn®). The agency also emphasized that the risk applies to even short-term use of these medications. More alarming is that the warning applies to both people with or without heart disease.

To gauge if we understand that our heart health can be at risk even with a few doses of NSAIDs, I canvased my experts. Overall, the leading physicians in rheumatology, pain management and orthopaedics agreed: We don’t. According to a pain management physician, she doesn’t believe the general public will pay attention to the FDA’s increased warning that NSAIDS can hurt your heart—a risk that can be elevated within the first few weeks of taking the drugs.

While NSAIDs can be helpful and have their place in taming pain, I’ve learned it’s best to not look at these as a long-term pain relief plan. An orthopaedic surgeon summed it up best, “I rarely prescribe NSAIDs, and if I do, it’s using the lowest effective dose for the shortest period of time possible,” he stressed. “Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and topical NSAID gels, such as Voltaren, can help the pain and are a safer alternative.”

It’s true day-to-day stress and strain can make a pill seem an easy route to pain relief, but it’s important to step back and think twice. Talk to your doctor to see what they recommend. Luckily, I have this important reminder on my radar. Now, I hope you’ll put it on yours.

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